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Without More Game Modes, Arena Is at Risk When Standard Suffers

In many ways, Magic Arena has delivered on its promise to be the full game of Magic. In general, cards tend to work properly, and if you jump into full control mode on occasion, even most tricky stack-based interactions work as they should. The rules are the same as they are in paper, as are the cards. However, Magic is more than just a set of rules and a handful of cards. The reason Magic is considered one of the greatest games ever made, and the reason the game has survived 25 years of Skullclamps, Necropotences, and Jace, the Mind Sculptors, is that it's really many different games that happen to use the same game pieces and rule system, with these different games disguised as formats.

Photo from Nashville Public Radio

Imagine you're at a MagicFest and to your left, a group is playing a game of multiplayer Brawl, while to your right, a Vintage match is taking place. Technically, everyone is playing Magic, but beyond the card backs and most likely the goal of getting your opponent's life total down to zero, the two matches don't really share much of anything in common. The breadth of Magic makes it such an amazing game. 

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Right now, one of Magic's primary formats—Standard—is in a bad place. We just had a rare emergency banning to remove Field of the Dead from the format after it made up 43% of the metagame at Mythic Championship V, and now we're heading into Mythic Championship VI with Oko, Thief of Crowns approaching an unprecedented 70% of the Standard metagame at some recent tournaments. Things are so bad that Nerd Rage Gaming nearly had to cancel one of its $5k Standard tournaments because only two players signed up (it ended up switching the format to Pioneer at the community's request), and Star City Games changed its next invitational in favor of the Pioneer format. In short, no one wants to play Standard right now. The format is a combination of broken and, even worse, unfun.

Enter: Magic Arena

While its easy enough for a tabletop tournament organizer to switch the format of its event or for a Magic Online player to hop into a Legacy, Modern, Pioneer, or Pauper queue when Standard isn't appealing, this isn't an option on Magic ArenaWizards' much-hyped, brand new, no-longer-in-beta digital client—because non-Standard constructed formats aren't readily available for players to enjoy. So far in Arena's short life, Wizards has shown itself to be completely unwilling to really support any format outside of Standard and bot-based Limited. Sure, we get special events every now and then featuring formats like Pauper and Momir, and until recently, it was easy to write off the lack of support for other formats as being a byproduct of Magic Arena technically being in beta. After all, we were promised a non-rotating format to keep our cards playable after rotation and later Brawl as well. 

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Magic Arena has officially been released, and it still doesn't really support non-Standard formats. Well, technically it does, just enough to make "Don't worry, players will still be able to use all their cards that rotate out" something less than a direct lie, but in reality, non-Standard constructed play comes in mostly hidden unranked modes or with one-day-a-week or one-week-a-month events. So while "Don't worry, players will still be able to use all their cards" is true, it's true in the weird, rules-lawyery sense of the term where you name Borborygmos with your Pithing Needle only for your opponent to say, "Gotcha, I played Borborygmos Enraged, not Borborygmos."

The community was hopeful that Historic—the non-rotating format designed to keep cards playable after rotation—would be "Arena Modern." Many actually expected it to cross over into paper play and become a post-Modern non-rotating option. Instead of being a viable non-Standard option on the client, its butchered launch and complete lack of support from Wizards have made it a laughingstock. And the laughter grew even louder when Pioneer was announced, with Pioneer being what many players hoped Historic would be, with not only a bigger and better card pool but with a huge amount of support from Wizards, with Players Tour events, Grands Prix, and PTQs starting almost immediately after it was announced.

As I mentioned before, technically, you can play Historic on Arena in unranked mode (if you have an hour or two to waste and want a challenge, try to figure out how), and starting this month, we are supposed to have the first Historic events on the client. The problem is that rather than being available at all times, Historic events will come and go, with one week per month and then one month per set release offering Historic queues. Combined with some choices Wizards made regarding Historic, which make it appear as if Wizards really doesn't want the format to succeed or be heavily played, even having some once-in-a-while Historic events is unlikely to make the format legitimate at this point. For a bit of context, in just over a week since Pioneer was announced, MTGGoldfish received over 14,000 user-submitted decks for the format. Meanwhile, Historic has less than 300 submissions, despite it having been an official format for quite a bit longer than Pioneer. The reason for Historic's historic unpopularity (and arguably for Pioneer's staggering popularity) all goes back to Wizards and its support (or lack thereof) of the format.

Once it was clear that Wizards didn't really want to support Historic, the community's next-best hope for an evergreen, non-Standard constructed format on Arena was Brawl. While the format fizzled in paper, having it as the Arena version of Commander resparked the community's interest in the format. After releasing a series of Brawl decks, generating even more hype for the format, Wizards finally announced specifics: Brawl would be coming to Arena in day a week, on Wednesdays. Once again, given the perfect opportunity to add another evergreen format to Arena, Wizards decided against it, leaving the newly launched and heavily advertised client with just a single constructed format available on a daily basis.

The Reasoning

In some convoluted, capitalistic, and greedy way, only supporting Standard on Arena makes sense from Wizards' perspective. The churn of Standard, with new sets every quarter, a rotation every year, and bannings now and then, makes Wizards money. While disguised by cheaper deck prices, over the long haul, Standard is one of the most expensive ways to play Magic since you need to purchase new cards at least four times a year when a new set is released, and frequently more often to keep up with changes in the metagame. As a result, Standard makes Wizards a lot of money.

Compare this to Historic. Since Historic doesn't rotate, you can—at least, in theory—build a Historic deck and play it for years with minimal changes. This means you don't have to buy new cards, and if you don't need to buy new cards, you aren't giving Wizards your money. To funnel players into its most profitable format (Standard), Wizards has decided to simply not give players the option to play any other format.

From a short-term economic perspective, Wizards' line of thinking makes at least some amount of sense. Standard players are more profitable than Historic (or Pioneer / Modern / Legacy) players, so the more Standard players (and fewer players of other formats) there are, the more money Wizards will make. Basically, it seems as if someone at Wizards or Hasbro is under the illusion that by eliminating other formats that could compete with Standard, Arena players will simply play more Standard and thereby spend more money. When Standard is healthy and fun, this might be true, but what happens when Standard is so bad that huge tournament organizers like Star City Games drop the format from their flagship invitational tournament in favor of a Pioneer format that is only a couple of weeks old? My guess is that rather than playing Standard, most Arena players simply play another game.

As someone who has played Magic for a long time, when I stop enjoying a format (for example, Standard right now), my normal technique is to switch to another format (like Pioneer) for a while. For me, this simply means not playing Arena and using Magic Online instead. However, a lot of new Arena players don't want to play (or maybe even know about) Magic Online, and in a world where gamers tend to quickly jump from game to game based on whatever is hot at the moment, for these players, the most likely outcome is that they turn to Hearthstone, the new League of Legends card game, Eternal, or another genre of games altogether. While people who have been playing Magic for 20 years are loyal to the brand almost to a fault, for someone who picked up the game when Arena was officially released last month or a year ago during the beta, if Standard becomes unfun, Arena as a whole becomes unfun, and the easiest thing to do is look for a more fun way to spend their finite free time.

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In a perfect world, Standard would always be awesome, and the concern about how Arena survives and thrives when Standard is lacking—as it clearly currently is—wouldn't actually be that much of a concern at all. Unfortunately, we don't live in a perfect world. No matter how amazing the designers and playtesters are at Wizards, it's not possible to both push cards enough that they are exciting and never accidentally push too far, leading to situations where Field of the Dead and Oko, Thief of Crowns (and before them, cards like Aetherworks Marvel, Felidar Guardian, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor) dominate Standard. While these mistakes can be fixed with bannings, bannings are painful, and since Magic is a paper card game and not digital-only like many of its competitors, they also take time, which means when Standard is bad, it's usually bad for months and not days. 

Since we want Wizards to print powerful cards and never making a mistake clearly isn't an option, the only real solution for Magic Arena is to support more formats, so that when Standard goes through its inevitable bad, dry, or boring periods, players will have another constructed option in-client. 

The Excuses

In the past, when asked about the lack of additional constructed formats, Wizards' go-to answer is that it is afraid of dividing the player base between too many different options, which could theoretically lead to longer waits for games to fire and worse matchmaking. If Magic Arena were a struggling game with a handful of players, this argument would make sense, but from all the information we have available, Magic Arena appears to be a thriving game with millions of players. 

Meanwhile, Magic Online, with its tens of thousands of players, has about 50 queues available at all times, along with scheduled events, and tournaments and queues for popular formats fire quickly most of the time. Sure, if you want to play Planechase or some other oddball format, you might have a hard time getting a match, but for Limited, Standard, Modern, Pioneer, and other popular formats, queue times aren't a meaningful concern on the client. If Magic Online can support a plethora of formats with (comparatively) a handful of players, it's hard to believe that Magic Arena couldn't support at least a couple of more evergreen constructed formats without the entire system falling apart due to long waits and poor matchmaking.

Another popular theory is that it's simply too much work for Wizards to add new formats to Arena, but this seems to be driven more by the community than Wizards itself. According to Wizards, it's actually very easy to add cards to Magic Arena, and this is actually backed up by some recent additions to the client, with Wizards adding 22 old, unplayable in any Arena-supported format cards to the client just to improve a Momir event that ran for a couple of days. If Wizards can program a bunch of cards for a throwaway weekend event on a lark, it seems very likely that a format like Pioneer could be fully implemented in a matter of months rather than years if Wizards wanted to. The problem is that Wizards has made it clear that it doesn't.

Of course, the programming work argument doesn't really apply to Brawl or Historic, both of which are already on Magic Arena, and they could be made into permanent game modes at any moment with almost zero effort. So in reality, this excuse falls apart on multiple levels.

The Solution 

The solution to this problem is easy: Magic Arena needs more evergreen constructed formats. In a perfect world, we'd be talking about back-filling sets for Modern, or at least Pioneer, although so far, Wizards hasn't shown any signs that it is even considering adding these formats. While pushing for Wizards to add Pioneer is a good goal, it's also a more long-term goal since it would take at least some amount of time to add the cards necessary to make Pioneer work to the client (although likely not as much time as most people think), and Standard is bad now. Meanwhile, for formats like Brawl and Historic, all it would take a click of a button—the work is already done. We don't have Historic or Brawl support on Arena not because Wizards can't do it but because it won't. 

While it's wonderful that Magic Arena is full Magic in the sense that it has all of the rules and recent cards, what makes Magic the greatest game on Earth is that you can play it in whatever way you enjoy the most. This is what Arena is missing. While the client can skate by while Standard is good, to reach its true potential and be a long-term success, giving players more options to play the game in whatever ways they find enjoyable is essential. Broken cards will keep happening. Even after the current Oko problem is solved, bad Standard will come again at some point in future months or years. The only long-term solution to the problem is for Wizards to stop dictating to players how they should enjoy the game and to truly provide the full Magic experience by offering players additional formats to learn, explore, and perhaps even love.

In practice, this means two things: first, Wizards needs to offer at least one of Brawl or Historic (and preferably both) as permanent, evergreen game modes that players can play seven days a week, 365 days a year, starting immediately. Having players enjoy a somewhat less profitable format is better than having players quit Magic altogether and play a competing game, which is a very real risk. Second, over the long term, Wizards needs to backfill Historic until it becomes Pioneer, to give players a true way to "still be able to use all their cards after they rotate," rather than the watered-down, irrelevant-to-the-rest-of-the-multiverse Historic.

It is easily within Wizards' power to do the first of these two things immediately and the second in the semi-near future. While having a broken Standard format is never a good thing, hopefully, the last few months of Field of the Dead and Oko, Thief of Crowns will lead to some good, as Wizards realizes that putting all of its Arena eggs in the Standard basket is a very risky plan and that allowing players to experience the full game of Magic, with multiple formats, regardless of their short-term profitability, is the best way for Arena to find long-term stability and success.

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